August 01, 2007

Precision Guessing

A close friend of mine is a psychiatrist and former medical director of a large behavioral health organization.

In our frequent conversations about psychiatry and the human condition, he often makes the point that human behavior is often unfathomable.

It occurred to me recently that his years at Harvard and Johns Hopkins may have been wasted. If he wanted a profound understanding of human behavior all he needed to do was spend a little time around account planners. All they need is a few interviews, a few groups, a week in the field, and bingo... insight!

I suppose we are fortunate to have people of this caliber in our industry.

As for me, I'm afraid I have a hard time understanding human behavior. As a matter of fact, I have a hard time understanding my own behavior.

I have no idea why I buy Jif instead of Skippy. I don't do taste tests. All I know is that when I'm standing in the peanut butter aisle staring blankly into space, there comes a time when I have to make a decision. And for some reason I usually grab the Jif. Do I have an emotional attachment to the Jif brand? Gimme a break.

And if you can help me understand why I buy Chuck Wagon for my dog Buddy instead of Alpo, I will be most appreciative. From all I can tell, it doesn't seem to matter much to him. So why does it matter to me? As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure it matters to me. I just do it.

I'm frequently dismayed that I understand so little about human behavior while others in my profession seem to understand so much.

Either these people are uniquely brilliant, or they're bluffing. My money's on bluffing.

Here's why. One of the most difficult things an agency has to do is justify to clients why they pay us all this money. This is particularly vexing if the agency can't demonstrate a direct relationship between its endeavors and its clients' sales results.

So agencies create misdirection and false goals. You've probably seen them all: awareness scores, copy test results, gold statues... not exactly real sales results, but close enough to fool most clients.

The best misdirection strategy of all is to create mystery around the process. "We have the 'Z-Process'... "We have the 'Human Insight' process"... "We have 'Planning Plus'... The objective is to create the impression that the agency has a proprietary methodology for understanding and explaining consumer behavior.

It is a way to hide the ultimate advertising truth: Creating advertising is largely precision guessing.

In Hollywood they have a saying: "Nobody knows anything." This explains how huge-budget, big-star, focus-group-approved movies manage to bomb on a regular basis.

It is not dissimilar in advertising. Most of consumer behavior is perfectly obvious -- people like things that look nicer, taste better, work more dependably and cost less (see Salesmen & Sociologists.) Then there’s the mysterious part. And what we claim to understand about the mysterious part is usually speculation and ideology masquerading as knowledge.

Most of what we know about consumer behavior is about probabilities, not absolutes. Unfortunately, our clients like absolutes. They don’t want to be told that they’re paying for probabilities and guesswork. They want data and they want it now. So advertising agencies spend great quantities of time and money dressing up probabilities and guesswork to look like facts.

Yet the simple truth is that the best ad agencies are not the ones with the largest number of Official Consumer Insight Elucidators, but the ones with the best precision guessers.

The bottom line is, we should be skeptical of conjecture about consumer behavior tarted up as grand strategic insight. We certainly want to use whatever research methodologies are available to find out what consumers have to say about their behavior, but we should temper this with the knowledge that to some extent they don't know why they buy Chuck Wagon instead of Alpo. And if they don't understand their own behavior, perhaps we need to exercise a little modesty in asserting that we do.


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